Here’s how an exciting wave of recent discoveries is moving us closer to a cure.
In the U.S., one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. I became one of those eight women a decade ago and endured the go-to treatment at the time for breast cancer — chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, with ensuing hair loss and constant nausea. But there’s great news for all women. That toxic regimen may be headed out the door, because breast cancer treatment is rapidly moving to a more personalized and targeted paradigm that could save millions of lives and drastically change the quality of life of patients.
Here are three dramatic advances that are leading to more effective treatments, as well as brand new ways to think about what causes the deadly disease.
Targeted combo therapy completely obliterates signs of cancer
The biggest advance of 2016 in breast cancer has to be how a combination of targeted cancer drugs completely obliterated all signs of breast cancer in 11% of patients in only 11 days.. The UK-based study involved 257 women with particularly virulent type of breast cancer (HER2-positive), and combined two drugs from GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK) and Roche Holdings (NASDAQOTH:RHHBY).
While 11% may not seem that impressive, for even one breast cancer tumor to be completely eradicated by a drug in less than two weeks is electrifying. Cancer tumors develop resistance to chemotherapy agents so rapidly, these drugs often have no impact on a tumor even after many months of treatment. Instead, tumors are removed surgically first. Chemotherapy comes afterwards — to mop up stray cancer cells that might have spread elsewhere in the body.
In the past few years, a small minority of women have been having chemotherapy first. While that regimen sometimes shrinks the size of tumors, typically the order is reversed because the oncologist is more concerned about where the cancer could be going rather than the primary tumor. But Glaxo and Roche’s drugs — Herceptin and Tykerb — are not infused chemotherapies, but simple oral pills. In addition, these drugs are highly targeted treatments, and attack cancer cells specifically. That’s a huge plus because patients do not have to deal with the severe side effects of chemotherapy, which kills all rapidly dividing cells in the body like hair follicles and healthy bone marrow cells.
Better yet, there is a large arsenal of these new therapies already on the market, including monoclonal antibodies like Herceptin and Tykerb, checkpoint products such as PD-1, and other treatments that unleash the power of the patient’s immune system. As was seen in the Glaxo/Roche drug trial, pairing these drugs together in a one-two punch is raising the success level of treatment and may eventually point the way to a cure.